History of the Faculty of Engineering
On the Ashes and Wrecked Foundation
Midway up the south wall of the Macdonald Engineering Building is a reminder that it was built literally on the ashes and wrecked foundation of its burnt-out predecessor. The carved phoenix rising from the flames is one of the few ornaments on a building constructed specifically for fire-proof functionality. The loss of the original building in 1907 was a major blow to the University, especially as it occurred less than a week after a blaze destroyed the home of the Faculty of Medicine. Architect Percy Nobbs, then Director of McGill’s School of Architecture, was commissioned to design the new building, which opened in 1909. Although the phoenix is easy to overlook, the handsome Macdonald Engineering Building is a mainstay on the east side of McGill’s downtown campus.
The story of McGill’s Faculty of Engineering does not just begin with its great buildings. Some 38 years before the construction of Engineering’s two original edifices, McGill had been offering lectures in Applied Sciences. This series of lectures was started in 1855 by William Dawson, a renowned geologist and McGill’s fifth principal, and was offered within the Faculty of Arts until the formation of the Department of Applied Sciences in 1871. Eventually, the lectures formed the core of a two-year curriculum leading to a Diploma in Civil Engineering.
The Arts Building was home to engineers until 1893 when two generous gifts – a bequest by Thomas Workman and a donation from William C. Macdonald – eased the University’s acute overcrowding and gave Engineering its first two buildings: the MacDonald Engineering Building and the connecting Workman Technical Shops.
In 1931, when the Faculty of Engineering finally came to be, it was already a national and international leader in everything from Civil to Radio Engineering. The Faculty has remained among the finest in the world, producing Nobel Prize-winning engineers and world leaders in all of its disciplines, including Architecture and Urban Planning. And as much as McGill engineers have changed the times, the Faculty has also changed with the times, as the 1998 adoption of “The Blueprint”, the Engineering Code of Conduct, attests.
The story of Engineering does not end with its new buildings either, but the Faculty’s future growth owes as much to its modern benefactors as it does to its historic ones. The M.H. Wong Building, erected in 1997, and the Lorne M. Trottier Building, which opened in September 2003, were both made possible as a result of gifts from alumni and friends.
In these wonderfully equipped and spacious facilities, future generations of McGill engineers will continue to write the chapters of this story.
The task of writing and editing this volume could not have been done so readily were it not for Moreen Torpy’s efforts in gathering the material. She was greatly aided by, among others, Professor Emeritus Tom Pavlásek, whose first-hand knowledge of the Faculty was not only comprehensive, but fascinating, much like the man himself.
N.B. For the sake of brevity, unless stipulating an academic distinction or award, the title of Professor has been omitted before the names of Engineering academic personnel.
Colin Snowsell, PhD student Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University Editor
McGill University Archives,